When To Get Tested for HIV
The human immunodeficiency virus, more commonly known as HIV, is a virus that damages and destroys the CD4 white blood cells in your immune system.
No HIV test can detect HIV immediately after exposure.
There are three different HIV tests available.
Antibody tests take between 23 and 90 days to detect HIV after someone has been exposed.
Rapid antibody/antigen tests can be taken 90 days after exposure.
Nucliec acid tests can detect HIV between 10 to 33 days after you’ve been exposed.
HIV can weaken your ability to fight everyday infections, making you more susceptible to developing complications from common diseases. HIV is spread through:
- sexual contact
- sharing needles
- contact with infected blood
- from an infected mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding
Many people with HIV can live long healthy lives by taking medication. Knowing your HIV status is essential. As well as keeping you healthy, it will also help you protect your partners and loved ones.
How soon can HIV be detected by a test?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a test that can detect HIV immediately after infection. However, you should speak to your healthcare provider within 72 hours if you think you’ve been exposed to HIV. They will be able to offer medicine to prevent the infection, which is known as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) immediately. PEP is for emergency situations.
- It should be given after possible HIV exposure that might have occured during sex, shared needles or syringes or after a sexual assault.
- PEP should not be used regularly for HIV prevention.
- PEP isn’t the right option for people who could be frequently exposed to HIV.
- If you’re going to continually be at risk of catching HIV, then you should discuss pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) with your doctor or request PrEP at ZAVA.
When it comes to taking PEP, every hour counts. The sooner you take it, the better. If you’re offered this prescription, then you should take it daily for 28 days. Depending on the type of test, HIV infection can be detected between 18 and 90 days after exposure. Around 99% of people will develop antibodies after 3 months.
What are the different types of tests?
There are three different HIV tests; antibody tests, nucleic acid tests and rapid antibody tests.
The window period is the time between exposure to HIV and when the virus can be detected. This will vary between individuals and the type of test used. Your doctor or nurse will be able to tell you about the window period of the test you take.
Antibody (AB Test)
Antibody tests take between 23 and 90 days to detect HIV after someone has been exposed. They require blood from a finger prick or a vein which is then sent to a laboratory for testing.
If the AB test is a fourth or fifth generation combined antibody and antigen test, you can take your finger prick blood sample as soon as 45 days after exposure.
Nucleic acid test (NAT)
Nucleic acid tests, sometimes referred to as HIV RNA or viral load tests, will usually tell you if you are infected with HIV in a window period of 10 to 33 days after you’ve been exposed. These tests will screen for signs of the HIV virus itself rather than your antibodies. The results from these tests are around 99% accurate.
Rapid antibody/antigen tests (combination test)
The majority of rapid and self tests are second or third generation antibody tests. They can be performed at home and you should wait 90 days after exposure to take the test.
These require blood from a finger prick. You will get the results within 30 minutes or less. If the results are positive, then you will need a second test for a definitive answer and HIV diagnosis.
Will HIV show up in a normal blood test?
It’s important to note that HIV may not show in the results of a normal blood test. However, it does depend on which tests your healthcare provider has ordered alongside your normal blood work. Routine blood work consists of different tests with each one looking for something different.
How long does it take to show symptoms of HIV?
Most people will experience a brief flu-like illness 2 to 6 weeks after they’ve been infected with HIV. This is the first sign that your body is trying to fight the virus by triggering an immune response. Some of the symptoms of HIV during the early stages of infection include:
- aching muscles
- red rash on the torso that isn’t itchy
- sore throat
- swollen lymph nodes
Around 80% of people who get infected with HIV will get this flu-like illness and it’s said to last between a few days to a couple of weeks. In rare cases, some people experience these symptoms for many months. After they pass, you may not show any signs of HIV for several years. Please note that HIV symptoms in women can be different to those of men.
Over time, the virus will severely damage the immune system which is when you will experience more severe and life threatening problems. When HIV is diagnosed early, these symptoms can be prevented. This is why you should take a test for HIV if you think you could have been exposed at any time, even if you aren’t showing symptoms.
Where to get tested for HIV
Whether you choose to take a home test or at a medical centre, HIV tests in the UK are extremely reliable. While false positives are occasionally reported, they are very rare, with less than 1 in 1,000 known cases. If you don’t want to go to your GP or do a home test kit, then you can find HIV testing services based on your location here.
For those looking to test at home, you can order an HIV test kit from ZAVA. All you need to do is fill in a simple questionnaire when completing your order, no need to see a doctor in person. Once you get your test, you need to take it and post your sample to our lab using a prepaid envelope. You can then view your results securely in your online account.
Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Expansion
Babak studied medicine at King’s College London and graduated in 2003, having also gained a bachelor’s degree in Physiology during his time there. He completed his general practice (GP) training in East London, where he worked for a number of years as a partner at a large inner-city GP practice. He completed the Royal College of GPs membership exam in 2007.Meet our doctors
Last reviewed: 24 May 2022